Planning to transform your organisation, and thinking how to approach it? Confused what is the difference between transforming the entire organisation vs introducing Agile in IT?
Keep these things in mind and approach it like a pro!
Agile is more often than not seen as the remedy, the magic cure that will solve all the problems. And after all, everyone is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?
The above statement somehow summarises what we hear and feel about Agile now a days. You think project is running late, there are challenges, let's start sprinting and everything will return back to normal. Well actually not. Things don't become better because you started doing sprints. You have to make the whole organisation Agile.
Adopting Scrum, Kanban or other agile practices is a great way to start fixing the organisation: it puts the focus on learning and iterating instead of planning and predicting. It's not just for the folks in IT. It is for everyone. It helps you move away from the hierarchical model to a more networked model of autonomous teams. But it is far from a silver bullet.
We have learned that a lot more is needed to unlock organisation-wide agility and become future-proof. The truth is that most agile transformations fail to deliver what is promised. On several occasions we were asked to repair a failed attempt to bring agility and responsiveness into the organisation.
What we often see is that organisations try to adopt agile in a way that is fundamentally at odds with the underlying mindset that it tries to introduce. Here are some of our observations.
Top-down agile doesn’t work, it simply creates a new command-and-control structure.
The agile manifesto and its 12 principles provide a lot of wisdom of how to effectively create value in organisations. The manifesto tells us to ‘build projects around motivated individuals … self-organising teams … and trust them to get the job done’. However many organisations and leaders end up adopting agile frameworks with the same plan-and-predict mindset they’ve always had.
In one of the agile talks I gave, I asked a question, who in this audience has experience working in a high performing and self organising agile team. Surprisingly, only one gentleman raised his hand. On further explanation he mentioned that he used to train in the racing (go-karting) arena and their lives were on the line if something goes wrong, thus they used to care about each other, check the work and took responsibility for the work they were delivering on the track.
But while doing IT projects, are our lives on the line? We all get another day to do the unfinished job. Thus, when the team is not high-performing and self organising,
the old, centralised, command-and-control system of management remains in place. When using Scrum, product owners mandate project scope and deadlines, and Scrum Masters assign tasks to team members.
Now that backlogs have become transparent, even more time is spent on long-term upfront planning than before. The detailed plans and estimations need to be approved by oversight committees, whose main job is to “align” the agile teams. Time of team members is tracked in detail, and people are summoned to explain if there is a deviation of the plan. Failure leads to blame, instead of learning and innovation.
Teams suffer from slow decision making processes and policies that are incompatible with agile. Many teams never actually interact with a customer but end up executing whatever management tells them.
They are not empowered to decide what makes most sense for the customer or bottom line. It’s almost impossible to get approval for great ideas that originate within the teams themselves. We can’t deal with the increasing world of complexity and unpredictability by doing more controlling, planning and prediction — even if we’re “doing agile.” We have to let go of our linear, reductionist mindset and instead aim for self-management enabled by servant leadership. The leader’s new job is to work on the system, creating a healthy environment in which people can grow and results can happen.
Agile is not a fixed end-state, it’s a way of being
The agile manifesto told us to value ‘individual and interactions’ over ‘processes and tools’. And yet, agile has become a jungle of tooling vendors and consulting companies selling frameworks that are implemented as a static blueprint.
Agile becomes the new ‘standard process’ and the attention shifts to implementing and enforcing the agile practices. Maturity models and reports are created to measure how much of the teams are complying to the new way of working. Doing ‘agile right’, while ignoring the underlying values and principles, will not lead to agility.
We are often asked “what does the organisation look like when the transformation is completed?”
That’s the wrong question. If you’re looking for a new fixed end-state, you’re missing the point of agile. To keep up with a fast changing world, the organisation needs to change continuously — it needs to be agile everywhere. Successful organisations are like shapeshifters or chameleons. They go beyond agile practices. The organisation is being ‘worked on’ every day, with everyone’s input, all the time. As a consultant and a SPC, our role is to make your organisation sprint and iterate as a subsystem and then we hand over this baton and move on.
Agile doesn’t fix your problems, it shines a light on them
Agile shines a light on the real problems of the organisation but doesn’t necessarily offer a way to fix them. Agile is designed to make teams faster. This additional speed will put more pressure on the system, revealing the leaky pipes which then need to be fixed.
Very often the leaks are so deeply embedded in how the organisation works that even the most experienced executive will be unable to fix them. We see inhibitions come to surface, opposition to the idea, false positives are provided to support the "old" way of working which is still effective.
Things that commonly need to be changed are decision making, prioritisation, resource allocation, policy enforcement, performance management and organisational structure. Chasing such a big org-wide change can pose a risk to the person’s career progression or reputation in the organisation even when that person is already at the top.
Scrum, Kanban and other agile methods can help organisations become more agile in pockets. But eventually these efforts plateau, and even stall, as they reach organisational constraints. The problem is not the people or their skillset, but legacy structures, practices, policies and even culture that reinforce old mindsets and patterns. If these stay in place, agility will remain constrained. We don't have to send people away and hire new ones, we have to transform them by making them un-learn and re-experience.
Agile lacks the language to go beyond IT
Agile’s aim was to “uncover better ways of developing software”, and it did. Nowadays, it is successfully applied to other disciplines and other places where people work in teams to achieve a goal together. But because of its origins, it continues to be seen as the latest tool that we can use to execute IT projects successfully. The manifesto and its practices lack the language to get what we desperately need: a mindset shift in the way we organise work in the 21st century.
To bridge this gap, we like to articulate scaled agile principles which are perfect fit for the entire organisation.
Making use of the product and tool which promote transparency and aid visibility should be promoted. Embrace "Open over Closed" Embrace transparency, let information flow, work in public.
Look at the fact - Does everyone has the information they need? Can we provide clarity and improve transparency of priorities?
Implement small Sprints over Big Moves - Take small bites, time box, steer continuously, commit to a cadence. Do we steer continuously or are we still making long-term plans?
Do small experiments and learn how change happens in your organisation. Learn what your people need. Point your agile toolkit at the organisation itself. Don’t stay stuck in bookish agile practices. Let them bend and flex in order to serve you better. Start asking your teams what is holding them back from doing the best work of their lives. Ask them for suggestions to change the organisation. Imagine leading an organisation where everyone is engaged in making the organisation better every day. I recently saw a quote from a LinkedIn update that perfectly encapsulates this idea.
Too often organisations think becoming agile is something that needs to be added on top of what they already do, when in reality, it’s more about unlocking the potential that already exists.
Don’t stay stuck in top-down agile. Instead, adopt an agile mindset and start addressing the deeper and more fundamental challenges in your organisation